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WHAT'S ALL THIS, THEN?

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All this is a ragtag collection of British comedy, the sum of which is greater than its parts, ultimately producing an evening of gentle congeniality. Perhaps it's because director Melanie MacQueen has encouraged an audience-friendly feel, from the creatively endearing pre-curtain speech to the sociable bows. And in the ultimate show of respect to actors and audience, the evening begins promptly at 8 p.m.

Enacted by a charming sextet of actors are two one-acts, three poems, and a sketch—albeit a sketch written by Noël Coward. The evening's undoubted jewel is Michael Frayn's one-act Chinamen, which finds a couple (Cliff Berens, Ellyn Stern) hosting a dinner party for two couples (Barbara Barnett, Dean Wood—the other couple remains offstage), although an ex-husband (Daniel Leslie) is mistakenly included in the plans. Frayn's comedy-of-error, door-slamming silliness—a precursor to his Noises Off!—is here done to mostly frenetic satisfaction. But the script includes precise stage directions that cannot be ignored; this production, performed in repertory and therefore sharing a set built for the weekend production, leaves MacQueen hamstrung. These actors good-naturedly step around, over, through the pre-established roadblocks. An invisible swinging door separating kitchen and dining areas is managed impeccably but distractingly by the actors: They elbow their ways through it, they listen at it with ears cocked, Wood pounds noisily on this invisible door, but we're watching the technique rather than remaining involved in the plot's convolutions.

Three humorous poems are enchantingly enacted: "How to Treat Elves," by Morris Bishop, is brought to life by a gnomish Berens; "The Pessimist," by Ben King, is delivered by a luxuriating Stern; "Canopus," by Bert Leston Taylor, remains indecipherable despite Barnett's lively efforts. In Coward's Cat's Cradle, two cat-owning neighbors (Barnett and a nearly unrecognizable Leslie) chat cattily over their back fence. And, most encouragingly, G.B. Shaw's one-act How He Lied to Her Husband (Stern, Wood, Berens) proves that even the greats have penned less-than-scintillating pieces. The cast—Americans all but one—holds its British accents, and the timing, occasionally marred by pensive moments, remains likewise British. Laurie Bloom serves as the bouncy hostess for the evening.

Fine technique, methodology, raw talent—no one can argue against the pillars of acting, and there's a supply of them here. But this production heartily proves that self-indulgence and "feeling" the moment would, under comedic circumstances such as these, satisfy an audience far less than an acknowledgement that you know we are indeed watching you.

"What's All This Then?," presented by and at Theatre 40, 241 Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills. Mon.-Wed. 8 p.m. Feb 17-Mar. 12. $15. (310) 364-0535.

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